Matt Sharma, head of strategic alliances, MultiTech, celebrates 50 years of MultiTech by reflecting on how the company started from very little to becoming one of the strongest innovators in the technology space. He also examines the importance of being customer-centric and flexible in the event of economic turmoil and what the next 50 years of MultiTech will look like.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To hear the entire interview on The Peggy Smedley Show, visit www.peggysmedleyshow.com, and select 3/19/2020 from the archives.

Peggy Smedley:
Matt, you have to tell us a little bit about MultiTech. You are celebrating a 50-year anniversary. How exciting is that?

Matt Sharma:
It’s really exciting, especially if I’m being reflective about it and think about what it started out as and how my father built something from nothing as an immigrant. I feel like it’s a very powerful story that can inspire a lot of people, whether they’re in the industry or not. But for employees at MultiTech, it’s just another feather in the cap as to why they work for MultiTech, because we have people that have been at MultiTech for 40-plus years that still work there. They’ve worked there since the ‘70s, since before we ever hit $1 million in sales, and they’ve seen the company grow and go through hard times, good times, and everything. I think it’s really a testament to the fact that MultiTech can stick around and weather recessions, weather different types of technology transitions in the broader marketplace and stay on top of things and keep our customers happy.

Smedley:
Some of those employees are very passionate about it, and I think that says a lot about your father’s vision that he had, not only for technology, but in fostering employees to have the goodwill to feel like they’re a part of the family. Tell me a little bit about your father’s vision that he saw in technology in general.

Sharma:
His vision of technology, outside of pioneering a lot of different things that we are pretty accustomed to today, going from bot rate two kilobits to now we’re in a gigabit type of economy, and this is the normal place we are today. I think that it was a vehicle for him to pass on what he never had to other people.
So technology aside, being successful at MultiTech meant that he can hire people and give other families a chance at success, and if you look at our workforce, too, you’ll notice that, especially on our manufacturing line, we have a lot of different first or second generation immigrant families that have built their entire existence as U.S. citizens or green card holders based on MultiTech. So my father didn’t necessarily have anyone fostering him to get to where he was. He did that all by hard work, and of course, there’s some luck involved in that as well.

It’s humbling for me to be able to walk in that building and talk with somebody about projects and try to figure out how we can do something for the greater market, especially when that person’s been working there for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s a very humbling thing, but it’s very common though, too, so you get used to it right away. They remember when I was running around the building before I could talk. I believed I could run before I could talk, and I don’t know if that’s how I still operate these days.

Smedley:
I think what is exciting is you can say there’s people who’ve been there before you were born, who understand manufacturing, who understand embedded technology, who understand modems, gateways, and routers, and those are the products that are the mainstay of a company that’s been generational, from what you just described, who are immigrants who have developed your father’s vision today, that is now part of your vision now, because you saw something that your father did, wouldn’t you say?

Sharma:
Absolutely. I’ve been working there since before he passed away, and one of the things that struck me when I first started there was that we were very device heavy and understanding how to write code in just basic languages, both web and C++, at that point, it wasn’t really that far of a stretch for me to figure out how to work these devices. However, if you’re working in any sort of IT environment, that’s not good enough. What I noticed is that we didn’t necessarily have a very defined software strategy when I first started after he had passed away and that always kind of perplexed me. And so now if you look at what we did to get us where we are right now, our mPower product, which is what is tying the software that’s behind all of our gateway and intelligent devices is really that roadmap piece that will take us forward into the future.

It’s definitely a transformative time for MultiTech, because we’ve gone from an analog company for the first 25-plus years into more digital devices, starting in the early 2000s, cellular modems, into what we are right now, which is possibly a cellular gateway, maybe it’s a lower LAN (local-area network) gateway, maybe it’s both. But either way, that gateway really does reinforce the fact that we are really marching towards edge intelligence. We believe that, keeping true to the roots of MultiTech in terms of low bit rates, that most of what you need to do can be computed at the edge and sent over the network in smaller packets. I think if my father were here today, he would have been the biggest fan of LoRaWAN (low-power, wide-area network), because it would’ve been right in his wheelhouse, what he was used to in the ‘70s, going back to bots. 300 bots going back to small kilobit rates and everything like that. So, we’re kind of back to basics, and I think it’s familiar for all of us.

The best thing about it, too, is that people that are looking at something that only has a transmission rate of a kilobit a second is not necessarily somebody that’s looking into IoT because they saw a commercial about 5G. So, we don’t have to sit there and try to figure out how to retrain the entire audience of people that just think that faster speed, lower latency is everything. And that’s as anything, right? We definitely have a sweet spot in the IoT space that’s moving back towards basics, which is again the low kilobit rate and higher transmission rate of acid data over longer distances without necessarily being high mobile network.

Smedley:
Is that something you’re most proud of? What stands out from you from the past 50 years is the evolution. When I hear you talk about going from analog to digital, making that transformation, so to speak, everybody talks about the digital transformation, but you’ve made the transformation…. But we’re there with high transmission because we want to be there right to the edge. That’s what you’re describing with LoRa, for people who get it, saying, “Look, we’re right there in a lot of industries that need a lot of things, and we’ve been there through the years.”

Sharma:
Yeah. With LoRaWAN, we were early adopters and we continue to have a market leadership position, not only in terms of our product line but also with our internal skillset and our influence in the industry within LoRaWAN. But I think that the other thing that really gets you passionate about MultiTech is how we did a separate transition within the digital transition where we did come out with different devices, gateway devices, that allowed our customers and partners to use it as their “secret sauce.” I don’t know how to best explain it except for we were able to give people the keys to our hardware without having to say, “You need to use our software.” So, they can develop anything they wanted to use our pre-approved gateways that can work on cellular networks, or in this case it can work on cellular and LoRa networks.

So that’s another thing that has been more of our recent legacy, which started out as a cellular development platform, which became the open communications gateway, which is now considered the conduit line of products. In my opinion, that would be our flagship product line would be the conduit. And we do have a new version of that conduit coming out this year, which is going to be essentially what everybody wants in the more consumer industry, which is more expensive and faster. We’re talking about iPhone industry.

Smedley:
What’s in store for MultiTech for 2020 when you talk about conduit? Is that the big thing or are there other really exciting things that customers need to know? Because we have a lot of different verticals to think about. When you think about the way edge is changing vertical industries and the way they conduct business, there’s lots of things that you’re doing and a lot of ways that you go to market.

Sharma:
Right. MultiTech has always been very horizontally vertical.

Smedley:
That’s an interesting expression, horizontally vertical. I love the way you say that.

Sharma:
It’s always kind of a difficult thing for me to describe to my friends what I do and what MultiTech does because we don’t necessarily do one thing. We have customers that span the gamut of different types of industries and areas of service. That’s why horizontally vertical kind of makes sense for us because, especially if you look at our embedded product lines that go into someone else’s printed circuit board, that can go anywhere. It’s not just meant for home healthcare, it’s not just meant for agricultural use, it’s meant for whatever you can imagine. So it leaves the innovation open to our customers to figure out. We just take care of that piece of manage the lifecycle product lines for them in that area. It’s one of those things where the vertical market piece is definitely something that we focus on, and we do it in different ways.

Sharma:
For example, if we’re talking about oil and gas, we focus on different certifications for ATX and class-end Dev2, maybe even class-end Dev1 at some point, trying to get towards more intrinsically safe devices so we can carve off a piece of market for MultiTech and be experts in that space. We also see that happening within the agricultural space with LoRaWAN. We have a lot of different opportunities and customers are developing now in the more commercial shipping arena as well.

So, we are kind of driven vertically by where we find success with our product lines, and that’s always evolving. So I wouldn’t ever go tell anybody that we are an XYZ company because it could change tomorrow, especially if you look at our economy today and how certain industries are definitely going to take a downturn because nobody’s traveling. We have to be flexible. We can prove to the rest of the market that we are a safe company to do business with because we’ve been around for 50 years and regardless of events like the Coronavirus or any type of recession that might happen with the broader economy, whether it’s U.S. or global, we’re here to stay. It’s just the way it’s going to be. We’ve seen other competitors come and go, but MultiTech is still a privately held and family-owned business, and we’ll stay that way.

Smedley:
When we look at that, that’s important for companies who want that intimacy, that relationship with someone. When you look long term and you wanted to continue to develop in those verticals, are there things that companies need to keep in mind with that as they decide? Like if I want to be closer to the edge, LoRa, or even things like when businesses start saying they want things like private LTE (long-term evolution) or 5G is critical to their business. There’s a lot of different choices right now. They have to really look at what’s going to make their business and LTE networks work. Those are choices. And when you have the right business partner, you have to help them figure out how to make those right choices within those vertical markets.

Sharma:
I guess to your point, that’s what we do at MultiTech is trying to be as adaptable to that as possible. So we do have different initiatives that focus on private LTE and 5G. We also have our vertical marketing teams that focus and try to hunt down customers in certain areas. The way that we always go products has been kind of a, “Let’s build it first, let’s get out in the market, let’s see how it breaks, let’s see how we get feedback, and let’s build on it.” And that’s really, in my opinion, that’s the best way to be innovative. I don’t think that there is really very many instances they can point to where there’s going to be a, “Hey, this person came out with this thing, and it’s perfect, and it works for everybody. And nobody really ever thought this was possible.” That’s never really what it’s like in the background. There’s always a longer story to all of it.

And so, as we continue to move forward year by year, we get new ideas from our customers. Our customers make us better. Our employees that work at MultiTech, we all want to be the best. We are a very customer focused and centric company. We’ve always been. That has been the key to our success for the past 50 years.

Smedley:
When you look at MultiTech as a whole and you look at all the things you do, you’ve talked about edge, you’ve talked about the conduit. And maybe we should go into more detail because I’ve had conversations with the folks that you have there as private LTE. And maybe I’d love to get your interpretation of what private LTE is going to do … why it’s going to be so critical for businesses. But there’s so much you’re doing, so let’s talk a little bit about that. Why that’s going to be so important as we think about the mobility side of things. Why is that going to change some things with what companies are going to do in the envisioned standard space situations?

Sharma:
Well, this is 100% my opinion, but what gets me excited about CBRS (Citizen Broadband Radio Service) is after working with mobile network operators for so long and understanding the complexity and the different layers of everything that goes on within one of the bigger MNOs (mobile network operators), it is very difficult to get stuff done. For a customer that has specific needs, it is even hard to have those met sometimes. And a lot of times, I believe there are companies out there that could say, “I could probably do this better myself.” What CBRS allows is just that. So we were talking about neutral host environments or somebody that say, for example, in oil and gas, that just needs to have their own secure network that doesn’t need to have an MRC (monthly recurring charge) with MNO all the time and have limitations and different types of EULAs (end user license agreements) everything. It just piles on top of itself. I really do believe that CBRS and private LTE will only foster innovation and create a hell of a lot more competition to keep everybody in check. And I think it’s going to be only beneficial for everybody in the long run.

Smedley:
When you talk about that innovation, it’s going to, again, allow for companies to get closer and more creative in what they can bring to market and how quickly they can do things in a more secure way because it’s closer to what the information is that they want to get and how they want to disperse what they want to do to their customer’s customer. Would you agree with that?

Sharma:
Yeah, absolutely. Then on top of that too, everybody has their own acute type of things inside their application or inside of their business need. Maybe the biggest thing that’s going to hold people back are certifications and interoperability, but if that’s done in its own closed environment, within certain guidelines, I believe it’s going to shorten the time to market and also improve other people’s security on a broader scale. And as long as there is some sharing of knowledge out there with how people are doing things going forward, I believe that we can really create a very secure environment for the rest of the century and going into the next century. Private LTE was a necessary step in that direction.

Again, going back to basics, if you look at what was so interesting for me as a kid, playing with dial up modems, was dialing into another modem. You know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you’re going to remote access server, you know exactly where you’re going and what’s behind that. And that’s about it. It’s that kind of simplicity that I think is really what is catching on here with a lot of people and in the CBRS and private LTE world.

Smedley:
When we look at edge and private LTE and LoRa and we look at LPWA (low power wireless area) and all of these come together and how you’ve taken a leadership position in the marketplace, how do you put all these things together to be able to service the customer so they know what’s the right technology path to go on? How do you help them with that?

Sharma:
I think that that’s a really difficult question to answer, and you’ll probably get different answers from every person at MultiTech. But maybe you’ll get one thing commonly said by everybody: Where we do find a lot of traction is the fact that we manufacture everything in the U.S. So we are able to control our quality, number one, but also what we’re able to do is we can respond to different types of volume needs. There’s usually a lot of special requests coming in from customers that have a very specific deployment strategy in place. And that usually means they have to have potentially a customized queue that needs to be managed by their vendor. So that’s what we’re very good at.

I think that’s another thing that a lot of folks, people just don’t have because, at the end of the day, a one-size-fits-all strategy really is never going to address the majority of the market that you can get out or whatever a company might be looking for. So, I really do believe that being able to be very specific towards the customer’s need is how we’re going to be successful, especially when you consider the different types of technologies that are out there.
Having control over how you build stuff and how it comes out as opposed to just saying, “Hey, we’re going to manufacture this overseas and we’re going to receive however many hundred … 100,000 minutes, for example, in the U.S. and hopefully we can sell it or maybe we have a sales pipeline to back it up,” but then there’s always going to be needs to change something, tweak something. But having our ability to be able to do that is something that sets us apart from our competition in my opinion.

Smedley:
Looking at that, because you talked about the IoT, we’ve always said the IoT, there isn’t one size fits all. For that very reason, does MultiTech have a new tech plan for the future? Because you’re constantly having the idea of building it here in the U.S. Everybody right now is saying, “We need to do that,” and the coronavirus is giving us a view why that’s so very critical to be able to change on a dime and meet customer needs. But also to be able to understand the customer’s needs. So do you have a new tech plan or is it a steady course that you’ve been following?

Sharma:
There’s a couple of ways I can answer that. Of course, we’re going to stick with our U.S. manufacturing. In fact, we’re making considerable investments in our manufacturing plants this year regardless of the coronavirus. But the thing is MultiTech is not a U.S.-only company. We have a great deal of business outside of the U.S., primarily in Europe and Asia, not so much in Africa or Middle East. However, they have their own needs as well. And if, for example, there’s some sort of crippling pandemic that’s born in the U.S. and we can’t ship outside of the country, then what? So, we are looking into different types of things where we can find manufacturers that could do overseas product manufacturing for us in case of something like this. I wouldn’t call it disaster recovery, but more business continuation planning.

And on top of that too, it will only add to our overall capacity as volumes go up because essentially what we’re seeing right now in the industry is that high volume things force the ASP to drop. You have to create more and more and more volume in order to keep our revenues and our margins up, with the exception of some products like the gateway price of course are a higher margin, but they also have a considerable build material too, so they’re not an inexpensive product to make.

But to your point, I believe the coronavirus really does highlight the fact that the U.S. is overly reliant on other countries to help its economy really do what it does. And then as soon as there’s some sort of disruption like this, it can send everything off in its own direction and usually it’s not a direction you wanted to go in. I believe that there is quite a bit of stability in knowing that we can deliver for our U.S. customers and control our supply chain locally here. But also we were very mindful of the fact that we are a global company and that is our strategy to focus more globally because a lot of times the trends are being set by different areas of the world, not just the U.S., so we have to be mindful of that and stay on top of everything else that we see out there.

Smedley:
And I think you make a really good point: make sure the U.S. is strong but also make sure other countries are strong. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think we have to think about a global environment and we have to all support a global world because we have to think about all of these other countries that need support as well. What is the biggest takeaway that we should take about MultiTech, because you’ve really presented MultiTech in a really great way. 50 years of strength, 50 years, maybe more, of growth, a hundred years more of growth. What’s it going to be?

Sharma:
Well, I won’t be alive to see the next 50.

Smedley:
You don’t know that. We’re all living longer, and you don’t know.

Sharma:
We’ll see about that. I catch a lot of grief for staying stuff like that, but it’s just the truth. But I guess in the next 50 years, I would be very surprised if MultiTech wasn’t around for another 50 years, to be honest with you. What I think the biggest takeaway for the person hearing this for the first time and never hearing about MultiTech, I guess to put the hook in the person: This isn’t an accident that we’ve been around for 50 years. If you want a quality partner to work with, MultiTech is definitely a great choice. Of course, I could always speak highly of our competitors as well because they do things differently than us and they do things very well that we just decide not to do. I think that the IoT industry as a whole has a lot of great players.

However, of course, I’ll have a very strong bias towards MultiTech because for a very obvious reason there, but our quality is number one. Our customers are number one tied with staff. And our employees are of course very, very attached to any customer that comes in the building and any product that leaves the building for that customer. We are 100% customer driven, and that is what controls our destiny, controls the innovation, and controls everything. If anybody ever has the opportunity to come visit us, we’d love to show you around. We have a 140,000-sq.ft., facility and we have over 200 people that work there, including about 90 or so people on manufacturing floor. If you want to look at how an American manufacturer works, we’d love to show you and keep you interested in what we’re doing because we’re here to stay.